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Mikio Yahara: His Way of Traditional Karate

The picture shows Mikio Yahara aka the Leopard.

The life and practice of 10th Dan, Mikio Yahara, is an inspirational story worth knowing for any serious karateka. By Patrick Donkor and Dr. Jeff Christian

Mikio Yahara is one of the most dynamic practitioners of Shotokan Karate to come out of the Japan Karate Association. Early on, Masatoshi Nakayama described him as the best fighter of his generation. To this day, traditional Karate is his passion, a former JKA Grand Champion. As a result, he is first and foremost a martial artist, a practitioner of traditional karate obsessed with returning Karate back to its budo roots. Yahara has a no-nonsense approach to his Karate.

Early Life of Mikio Yahara

Yahara was born on 4 April 1947 in the fishing village Namikata-Machi, Ehime Prefecture. He was the fourth son of a prominent family with samurai roots on his father’s side. His mother’s family were descended from pirates.

Growing up, he was a boisterous child who loved to fight. Therefore, at an early age, he became interested in Karate as his older brother practiced it. In an effort to calm him down, his brother taught him Karate, from the age of seven.

A few years later in 1954 Yahara went to junior school. However, he had a heart attack and was diagnosed with a heart condition. As a result, doctors thought he would not live past the age of twenty.

Almost ten years later, while a high school student, Yahara joined the school’s Judo club in 1963, refusing to be limited by his condition. Even in his youth he displayed what would come to be known as his characteristic strong will. He wanted to get stronger, which he did. Eventually, he reached the rank of second Dan in Judo.

How Mikio Yahara Discovered Karate

While excelling in Judo, Yahara joined a local Karate club affiliated with the Japan Karate Association. His teacher was Yagi Sensei, an instructor who came from the JKA Honbu in Tokyo. As with his earlier life in Judo, Yahara advanced quickly in karate. By 1964 he had been promoted to first dan. It was not long before he soon dreamed of becoming an instructor.

At that time, JKA instructors were normally selected from the best university graduates. Knowing this and wanting to be near the JKA Honbu, Yahara enrolled at Kokushikan University, Tokyo, in 1966. He soon joined the university’s Karate club.

By this time, his childhood condition was no longer an issue, and he had grown into a strong young man. Yahara’s instructor at the club was Kenji Yano. Training sessions were hard, and in some cases frightening. Many students left the club. Yahara was one of the few students to remain.

Through his dedication, Yahara became one of the best Karateka at the club. For example, he practised at the JKA Hombu, which helped develop his approach to traditional Karate. He sometimes practised at the Karate clubs at Komazawa, Nodai, and Nihon Taiku Daigaku universities. But, his seniors at the Kokushikan University Club soon avoided him due to his toughness.

From Student to Instructor

By 1971 Yahara had graduated from Kokushikan University and joined the JKA Instructors Course. Masatoshi Nakayama, Hirokazu Kanazawa, and Hideo Ochi were his main instructors on the course, while Kenji Yano was his Sempai (Senior).

As previously stated, Yano had been Yahara’s instructor at University. Nicknamed the “Destroyer,” Yano took sadistic pleasure in intimidating and beating up students. Moreover, he looked for ways to hurt his opponent during sparring sessions, especially grades below him.

As his kohai (junior), Yahara usually faced the worst of Yano’s aggressiveness. But he frequently had to go to hospital because of injuries he sustained. However, his pride would not let him quit. He would attend the next training session even though he was injured. In time he earned Yano’s respect for never backing down. By his own admission, he hated Yano. However, he respected is aggressiveness and strength.

During this time, another instructor who had a profound influence on Yahara was Keigo Abe. Abe was known for his exceptional technical ability.

Yahara tried to model himself on Abe’s technique and Yano’s spirit. Even from these early days of his training, Budo was at the forefront of his training, even in kata. For him, kata based in traditional karate was not for competition or grading but for making his kumite stronger.

Life of Competition

In 1972 Yahara’s international competitive career began in Paris, France. Two years later he graduated from the Instructors Course and started actively competing and teaching.

Subsequently, Yahara taught at the JKA Honbu. He had achieved his goal of becoming a JKA Instructor. But, he also taught at several dojo is on the outskirts of Tokyo. Teaching at these dojos sometimes meant he was involved in “dojo-yaburi,” dojo challenges between different Karate styles.

At the JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Yahara was a phenomenal competitor in both kata and kumite. He always featured in the top three positions in each event. During these years from 1975 to 1984, he faced some of the top competitors of the time, that included Masahiko Tanaka, Yoshiharu Osaka, and Toshihiro Mori.

In 1984 Yahara became JKA Grand Champion. He won the kata event defeating Masao Kagawa in the final. He came third in the kumite event won by Hideo Yamamoto.

Yahara also competed in three IAKF World Championships. At the 1977 Championships held in Tokyo, Japan, he finished second behind Yoshiharu Osaka in the kata event. At the 1980 Championships held in Bremen, Germany, he lost to Osaka in the final. He faced Osaka again in the final of the 4th IAKF Championships, losing to him.

Mikio Yahara: From Competitor to Teacher

In 1984 Yahara retired from competing. As a kumite competitor he was known for his dynamic and innovative techniques. He was a fan favourite and had many memorable matches. As a kata competitor his main kata was Unsu. He always performed the kata as if he was in a life or death situation. His major tournament successes include:

  • IAKF World Championships, Individual Kata – 2nd place (1977, 1980, 1983)
  • JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Grand Champion (1984)
  • JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Individual Kata – 1st place (1984)
  • JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Individual Kata – 2nd place (1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983)
  • JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Individual Kumite – 2nd place (1975, 1998)
  • JKA All Japan Karate Championships, Individual Kumite – 3rd place (1976, 1979, 1982, 1984)

Yahara featured in Masatoshi Nakayama’s Best Karate series published in 1979. He appeared in the following books:

In 1987 the Chief Instructor of the JKA, Masatoshi Nakayama, died. His death led to rival factions vying for control over the JKA. The Nakahara Faction was led by businessman Nobuyuki Nakahara. This faction included Masaaki Ueki, Yoshiharu Osaka, and Masahiko Tanaka. The rival Matsuno faction was led by Tetsuhiko Asai, and included Keigo Abe, Akihito Isaka, Yahara, and Masao Kagawa. What followed was a 10-year legal battle between the two factions.

Mikio Yahara’s Personal Life

By the 1990’s Yahara had established a personal security company. As a part of his business he had many run-ins with the Yakuza. He had to regularly move house to avoid being killed. These encounters made in value the importance of the Budo approach to traditional Karate. The core principle of Ikken Hisatsu, “one killing blow” became a fundamental part of his training.

Over time the Yakuza came to have a healthy respect for Yahara. There is a famous story in Japan of Yahara fighting 34 Yakuza members, who had targeted him and his company. He survived the encounter.

From JKA to KWF

In 1999 the Nakahara Faction of the JKA won the legal battle between them and the Matsuno Faction. A Japanese High Court ruling awarded them the sole rights to the JKA name.

Following the court ruling, the Asai Faction left the JKA. The Faction split to form the following groups:

  • Japan Karate Shotokai (JKS) led by Tatsuhiko Asai
  • Japan Shotokan Karate Association (JSKA) led by Keigo Abe
  • Karatenomichi World Federation (KWF) led by Yahara

Eventually, the KWF was established in April 2000. ” Karatenomichi” means “the way of Karate.” Yahara had not been happy with the direction Karate was taking. He wanted Karate to be more Budo-orientated. His teachings were based on the principle of “Ichigeki Hissatsu” – “one strike.” Much emphasis was placed on perfecting basic techniques through repetition. He was not against Sport Karate. However, his criticism is that everyone moves in the same way to win a point. Sport Karate lacks variety or uniqueness in fighters.

In 2006 Yahara was promoted to 8th Dan, aged 59. During his grading he broke three ribs of an opponent with a single punch.

The last several years has seen Yahara build the KWF into one of the biggest Shotokan associations in the world. Apart from running his business, he travels the world giving training courses and seminars in traditional karate. Away from Karate he practices Iaido. He is a fan of classical music, especially that of Russian composer, Tchaikovsky. Mikio Yahara is one of the most dynamic fighters to come out of the JKA. His unique fighting style made him a fan favourite. However, it is his exploration of Budo Karate that has made him one of the most important Karate Masters today.

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What is Zanshin? – The State of A Fighting Mind

The picture shows karateka in full zanshin expecting the next attack or counter.

Zanshin belongs to the central concepts of budo and Shotokan karate. In this article give you a detailed account about the fighting state of mind. By Thomas D. McKinnon

What does Zanshin mean?

Literally translated, zanshin means ‘left over or remaining heart /spirit/mind’. However, for the dedicated karateka, it means the state of total awareness. Being still within, while aware of one’s surroundings, and being totally prepared for anything.

It also conveys the fighting spirit of the individual after the fight. If victorious, the fighter needs a forward-looking awareness and should not lose focus by the victory. If by chance the fighter loses, he will carry an indomitable spirit with honor and grace. Then no real defeat of the character takes place. To encapsulate in a single sentence:

‘Zanshin can be said to be a state of total, calm, alertness. Before, during and after combat a physical, mental and spiritual state of awareness.

Our friends from WaKu Karate in Tokyo give in this video a hint about the concept.

Some Western Interpretations

I’ve heard many attempts by instructors to translate the concept into English for the western student to understand:

  • being in the zone, a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity; while dissociating oneself from distracting, irrelevant aspects of one’s environment.
  • a state of readiness to do again what you have already successfully done.
  • to focus intently on the moment (without emotion)… a state of sustained, committed concentration.

Other Arts also Require Zanshin

Zanshin is not the exclusive property of karate, or even the martial arts in general. It is a necessary characteristic of any credible soldier, police officer, security operative or martial artist. Also, outside of any fighting formats, the Japanese art of ikebana (flower arranging), chado (the tea ceremony) and Sumi-e (ink painting) requires zanshin: a state of being ever ‘present’.

In kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery, it refers to the body posture after the loosing of an arrow. The posture reflects the mental aspect (zanshin) maintained before, during, and after an action.

In kendo, the concept describes the continued state of alertness, spirit, mind and body, and readiness to meet the situation maintained throughout the whole situation. Zanshin – maintained before, during, and after an action – is one of the essential elements that define a good attack.

In iaido, the practice is calm and quiet, and the most important feature of iaido is the development of zanshin (a calm, reflective mind) throughout.

Zanshin in Shotokan Karate

In Budo karate competition, shobu sanbon or shobu ippon, to score with a technique requires zanshin. Fighters must maintain the mental aspect before, during, and after the scoring technique and not just a show at the end for performance.

Our author Thomas D. McKinnon exactly knows what zanshin means. He was soldier in the British Army and operated a high-level security company.
Our author Thomas D. McKinnon

Without zanshin, kata would appear only as a number of techniques performed in a dramatic arrangement (as seems to be the case for most sport karate performers). Enoeda Keinosuke Sensei (whom I had the good fortune to have as my chief instructor in my formative karate years), for instance, performed kata like the midst of battle.

Certainly, as well as kime, one of the aspects that a Shotokan karateka should be displaying, at the very latest, in preparation for shodan (that first blackbelt grading) is a solid understanding of zanshin.

Being Aware: The Foundation of Fighting Spirit

The famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, reputedly said:

“Both in fighting and in everyday life, you should be determined though calm. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken… Zanshin.

Toshiro Mifune as Miyamoto Musashi depicts zanshin at its best.

From a personal perspective: Formerly, as the CEO of a high-end, close personal protection company, I was responsible for selecting the personal protection operatives. All trained martial arts, some were former soldiers, and some were former police officers. Most would say that we obviously engaged them for their martial skills. However, their combat ability, certainly a desirable factor, wasn’t the primary dynamic in their engagement. Each successful CPPO applicant possessed that subjective but essential, qualitative characteristic: zanshin.

Zanshin in Everyday-Life

Zanshin means always being ready to do what is needed when it is needed. Having it in your life has many merits but one of the chief benefits would be the tendency to avoid pitfalls. Think about it: is it not better to avoid disasters than, after the fact, figuring out how to survive them?

Having a sense of when something is not quite right may not be a measurable element.

However, with zanshin in your daily experience, you will fortuitously take the only route through a disaster zone that delivers you, hale and hearty, to the other side. That is part of what it can deliver for you: a more fruitful life experience.

Zanshin is a characteristic that will help and assist anyone who takes on the way of life that we call ‘Karate-do’. Regardless of what other choices you make in your life i.e. career, family, living environment et cetera, zanshin enriches all.